Irish Guide: Census and Substitutes
Everyone seems to have heard about the Four Courts Fire of 1922, and how
"all the records were destroyed." Censuses of the whole island (of Ireland) were taken in 1821, 1831,
1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1901 and 1911. The first four were largely
destroyed in a fire in the Public Records Office (Four Courts) in 1922.
Those for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed by
Government order. It's true that these were a devastating
events, but there are a lot of genealogical resources that can help us in
our search for Ancestors. It just requires skills more closely related to
a detective than a librarian!
[What was destroyed were many wills (the indexes exist) and about
1/3rd of the Anglican records, in addition to the censuses for
1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851.
The churches were told to send in their records and not a lot
obeyed. They are Irish, are they not, so we're not surprised!
Many of the church records are still in local hands. There's a tendency
for county heritage organizations to index all the ones in the county
and charge you to do searches. Some of them are in PRONI on film.
Some Catholic parish records require permission of the Bishop or
parish priest -- if you go to Dublin. If you go to Belfast you can
just look at them.]
Since the basic rule of genealogy is to begin with yourself and progress
back, this list will start with the latest records. Similar lists can be
found on many web sites and some records are starting to show up on line as
well, but the bulk of the information we need is still located "out there"
in books, microfilm, microfiche, or in Ireland's National Library and
Public Records Office.
The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) have filmed records from around
the world and stored them in their repository in Salt Lake City. Their
generosity in sharing this information with everyone is the reason so many
of us have found the courage to dig for our roots. Local Family History
Centers, staffed by volunteers, provide access to these films and fiches,
merely for the cost of mailing (currently $3.50 per film). Before ordering films from the LDS you should always check the number on their
computer system. The Family History Library Catalog entry screen allows you to
select "film or fiche number" which makes it a very quick checking process.
Our goal is to list the known sources of information, and match them with the film or fiche
number cataloged by the FHC..
This assumes that if you live in the U.S., Canada, Australia, etc., you've
already done your "homework" using local records and the memories of living
relatives. Immigration and Naturalization records sometimes name a locality
(if you're lucky). If you know the name of the parish or townland, within
the county of origin, you can go straight to the census or Griffiths'
Vaulation (1850s). If not, you'll need to use other finding aids to narrow
the search. And even if you can never prove that "these Kellys are mine"
you'll get a real sense of the times and the "neighborhoods" to relate to
your own family history.
Some general Comments that apply to 1841 - 1891 unless otherwise stated.
- The census books we see were NOT carried by the enumerators. Instead
the enumerator copied his sheets into the book later. Not all adhered to
the route they took, and may have copied entires in many different ways.
Apparent neighbours were not always what they seem.
- Many people gave as their place of birth their earliest remembered place of residence.
- Terms such as Brother and Brother-in-Law were used interchangeably and somewhat unreliably.
- A boarder shares the dinner table with the family, a lodger has separate accomodations.
- Many night-workers were missed on all the censuses, although theoretically included from 1851 on.
- The occupation of 'dressmaker' was commonly given by prostitutes.
- The terms lunatic, imbecile and idiot were used in a pretty confused
and confusing manner, but there was, in theory a definition:
Lunatic: A mentally ill person with periods of lucidity.
- Imbecile: "Persons who have fallen in later life into a state of chronic dementia"
- Idiot: "..those who suffer from congenital mental deficiency."
- The term annuitant could describe someone on an annual allowance as
well as someone receiving annual income from an investment. Often however,
it was used also used for institutionalized pensioners.
- In 1841 the term Ag. Lab was used to describe "all farming servants and labourers in husbandry".
- From 1851 - 1851 enumerators were given explicit instructions to exclude women's domestic work in the family from the "Occupation" column.
- From 1861 onwards a child was described as a scholar if he/she was over 5 and receiving daily schooling *OR* regular tuition at home. There was no definition of the latter.
Government censuses were taken in 1821, 1831, 1841, 1851,
1861, 1871, and then in 1901 and 1911. See them at
As described on the censuses proper page, most of the censuses
were lost or destroyed. For this reason, searching in Ireland
means becoming familiar with and using many different
- Irish Genealogy, A Record Finder, ed. Donal F. Begley, Heraldic Artists
Ltd., Dublin, 1987;
Chapter 3: "Irish Census Returns and Census
Substitutes", by Rosemary Folliott.
- Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History, James G. Ryan, Ph.D.,
- Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, John Grenham, Genealogical Publishing Co.,
Baltimore, MD, 1992.
- This section builds upon the excellent work of a Fian 4 Fennid
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